Navy launches ship named in honor of LGBTQ civil rights icon Harvey Milk

Navy launches ship named in honor of LGBTQ civil rights icon Harvey Milk

The United States has a long, long way to go when it comes to protecting, honoring, and respecting LGBTQ+ people. There have been significant wins in relatively recent years—marriage equality, for example, and the growing number of openly LGBTQ+ elected officials—but we’ve also seen hateful legislation signed into law and violence against vulnerable queer groups continue year after year. In the not-so-distant past, LGBTQ+ folks lacked even the most fundamental dignities and protections, and few people were able to be both “out” and hold a position of power. That’s part of why the late Harvey Milk is still such an important icon.

And now, he’s finally being recognized by the U.S. Navy. As reported by the Associated Press, the Navy honored Milk on Saturday by christening and launching a ship in his memory. Milk, who became famous as the first openly gay politician in California, who was later assassinated by Dan White, first served in the Navy for four years. He was kicked out of the military because of his sexual orientation.

At the ceremony, which took place in San Diego, California, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro described Milk and other openly (or suspected to be) queer sailors as being “forced into the shadows” or pushed out of the Navy entirely. “That injustice is part of our Navy history,” he stated. “But so is the perseverance of all who continue to serve in the face of injustice.”

Milk served in the Navy in the 1950s, a time when openly queer people were not allowed to serve in the military. According to CNN, the Navy became suspicious of Milk, who served as a diving instructor during the Korean War, when supervisors noticed him hanging at a San Diego park frequented by gay men. Milk was eventually forced to resign after being confronted about his sexual orientation.

“He has a less-than-honorable discharge,” said Milk’s nephew, Stuart Milk, who attended the ceremony. “He was forced to resign because he was gay.” Though families can appeal to have these dishonorable discharges reversed, Milk said they want to keep his late uncle’s as it is for the sake of history, arguing that we “have to teach our history to prevent ourselves from going backwards and repeating it.” According to NPR, it’s estimated that more than 100,000 people were discharged over their (real or perceived) sexual orientation. 

The ship, called the USNS Harvey Milk, will replenish aircraft carriers with fuel while they’re at sea. The decision to name this ship after Milk actually dates back to 2016, when Ray Mabus (who at the time served as Navy secretary) declared that the six new oilers would be named in honor of civil rights advocates. Rep. John Lewis, Lucy Stone, Robert F. Kennedy, Earl Warren, and Sojourner Truth are the others.

Milk championed and campaigned on issues that are still, sadly, relevant today; for example, he introduced legislation to protect LGBTQ+ people from housing and employment discrimination. He also worked to make sure that teachers couldn’t be fired for their sexuality. As Daily Kos has covered, we’re still seeing allegations of teachers being fired or pushed to resign because of their sexual orientation. We also know housing and employment discrimination are alive and well, especially when it comes to trans people of color and queer sex workers. 

Milk was shot and killed by White, a former colleague who worked as both a city supervisor and former police officer, when he was just 48 years old. Milk was serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors when White killed him, as well as Mayor George Moscone, on Nov. 27, 1978. White shot and killed Moscone first, then entered Milk’s office and shot him five times, killing him.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein was actually in city hall when the shootings occurred, found Milk herself, and announced the deaths on the news. In recalling the murders in an interview with NPR back in 2018, Feinstein said it’s still “traumatic.”

“I tried to get a pulse in his wrist and put my finger in a bullet hole,” she told the outlet. “And it was clear he was dead. And that changed the world.” Though Feinstein was not present at the ceremony on Saturday, she wrote a letter saying the ship will hold a “rich legacy” of leadership.

White, who consistently opposed LGBTQ+ rights and battled with Milk about politics, was sentenced to only seven years in prison. 

You can watch some news footage from the time below, including some clips of Milk walking with constituents—happy, brave, iconic.

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